Harassment becomes major factor in Bulgaria's local and presidential elections
At first, Bulgaria ticks all the boxes of an European democracy. For the past 22 years it has had a multiparty system, church and state are theoretically independent of each other, and all citizens who own passports have the right to travel (if they've paid their taxes). Human rights are generally not an issue, the media is free and varied and all eligible citizens have the right to vote. The above should be enough for most foreign observers, investors and diplomats with an interest in Bulgaria to pronounce it "democratic," and to have little doubt that the 2011 local and presidential elections were "free and fair."
Indeed, if you were to compare Bulgaria to other former Soviet bloc states – particularly some of the states that were in fact a part of the erstwhile USSR – Bulgaria would look like a beacon of democracy. Consider Tadjikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Ossetia and Russia itself, and Bulgaria is streets ahead as a model where free and fair elections are the indisputable norm.
Comparisons are rarely relevant, however, unless they take into consideration the whole picture, the historical background, the little "local" details that in their entirety make up the big "national" landscape. Or, as Lenin used to put it, "the big truth is always made up of smaller truths that are not necessarily truthful on their own."
If anyone cares to delve into the details, it will instantly become obvious that something has gone very wrong with the quality of Bulgaria's democracy. Here are several points:
THE NUMBER OF REGISTERED VOTERS FOR THE 2011 LOCAL AND PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
The Bulgarian authorities declined to disclose publicly the grand total of registered voters in Bulgaria, but they were obliged to send the data to the observer mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It transpired that 6.52 million people were eligible to vote. Out of a population of 7.3 million, according to the latest census conducted at the beginning of 2011, this made up a voter base of 89 percent of the grand total. Quite ridiculous, as at least 1.2 million Bulgarians were under the legal voting age of 18. Where all the non-existent votes?
Then there were many "existent" voters who were banned from casting their ballot. According to new rules, only voters resident in the country for the past six months were allowed to vote. Quite fair, many argued, failing to take into consideration the predictable bureaucratic chaos that would ensue in determining who had lived in the country for the previous six months and who hadn't.
POLITICAL, ECONOMIC AND POLICE PRESSURE
Various political parties and individual candidates complained that the whole machinery of the state had been mobilised to eliminate "dangerous" would-be mayors and city councillors. Harassment included verbal abuse, including threats, as well as unprovoked but "perfectly legal" state actions such as police and tax investigations and so on. There is a report that a man in a small Rhodope town had been probed over 200 times in the course of a year owing for his alleged refusal to make a "donation" to the ruling party. Clearly, a protracted tax probe in a country like Bulgaria can ruin businesses and lives.
The Katunitsa incident set off an unprecedented wave of ethnically motivated hate rallies against Gypsies and Muslims. Most mainstream politicians, including the prime minister, were quick to call on the general public "not to politicise" the incidents. Yet the wrath of the citizens was nothing if not political. On the one hand, almost everyone in Bulgaria knows that for over 20 years Bulgarian justice had been applied selectively. Those who steal a little are put in jail, while those who steal a lot (and have the money to pay bribes) enjoy immunity and are widely admired. The current GERB establishment, in spite of its vocal promises, is no different from any other government that preceded it. It has failed to produce any meaningful indictments and its policies towards minorities are equivocal at best.
Physical violence has become part-and-parcel of political life in a country that had a relatively recent prime minister assassinated in front of his house, while the chief "suspects" were released after years of botched investigations.
Despite the protestations of the ruling GERB party and especially of its Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the police and the judiciary habitually fail to produce any meaningful indictments of alleged criminals. One such alleged felon, Alexey Petrov, spectacularly arrested but then released for lack of evidence, later stood for president...
Direct acts of terrorism ahead of the 2011 election included, but were not limited to, several explosive devices placed outside newspaper and opposition party offices. Just a week before the election the car of Sasho Dikov, a leading journalist known for his critical attitude to those in power, was blown up in front of his home.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov usually explains terrorism in Bulgaria by saying that the victims planted the bombs themselves "to attract attention."
Rosen Plevneliev, the GERB president-elect, intoned: "This is the way it always is ahead of elections."
Probably the worst outrages of the 2011 elections campaign were committed in and by the media. To see why the media are largely responsible for the way the election campaign progressed and ended, one needs to have an in-depth knowledge of their inner workings, ownership and business dealings.
While media ownership in Bulgaria remains at best nebulous, it is not difficult to see that the majority of media are owned by a few powerful economic groupings. At a time of economic collapse, the media are amongst the first to bear the brunt of a declining readership and plummeting advertising revenues. In a cashflow crisis that shows no signs of abating, many media are struggling to survive, and are willing to sell their editorial content to whoever coughs up the best offer.
That ruling parties and politicians have paid for media coverage has been a well-known fact in post-Communist Bulgaria, but the 2011 elections introduced a new aspect of this media trade. Most of the media made no effort to conceal their official "price lists," and even coverage of press conferences could only be procured for hard cash. As a result, some candidates were left in a state of information limbo, unable to express their views to the voters, while the press releases of others were carried as legitimate "news." Critics say that in this way a new "monetary restriction" has been imposed on Bulgarian democracy.
A more subtle way for the government to control the media is the way it indirectly manages advertising contracts. It is no secret that everything in Bulgaria, including the media, is closely entwined, often in hard-tounderstand, almost Byzantine relationships that include nepotism, corruption, personal likes and dislikes and sheer idiosyncrasy. As in Russia, with which Bulgaria has very close relations, doing business here is as much a political act, of having the "right" connections, as it is of entrepreneurship. To put it another way, the autocratically controlled state can make or break you, depending on who you know and how much you pay. The media are no exception to this general economic principle and, overall, they are reluctant to do anything that might jeopardise their business.
Then comes the tabloid press. Many of the stories that appear in the growing hoard of Bulgarian tabloids are outrageously libellous, and often have no basis in reality whatsoever. The examples are many and extremely varied, but they result in two things. First, few victims of libel are willing to spend time and money on legal suits; and second, the general hogwash that the hacks produce fosters a culture of rumour and distrust in everyone and everything. This leads the general public to distance themselves from politics, and contributes to the general feeling of desperation that has gripped Bulgaria during the economic crisis.
The standard of journalism in the Bulgarian tabloids, quite simply, makes the now defunct News of the World look like a stout bulwark of objectivity and accuracy.
Ahead of the 2011 election several nongovernmental organisations conducted media monitoring and came up with some startling results. The main star of the election campaign was not any of the presidential candidates, but the prime minister himself. In the period 7 September to 15 October Boyko Borisov's name was mentioned 872 times in the five national and two local dailies monitored, while his main rival, the leader of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party Sergey Stanishev, trailed behind by 400 percent! All the leaders of the six parties in the Bulgarian parliament were mentioned 119 times fewer than Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
The situation is a lot worse in the four main TV stations in Bulgaria, one of which, the Bulgarian National Television, is state owned. Boyko Borisov's name was in the news on 41 occasions, while Sergey Stanishev was mentioned three times. The GERB candidates were mentioned eight times, the BSP duo five times, and independent Meglena Kuneva was mentioned just once.
Polling agencies are a major player in Bulgarian elections, as their forecasts generally encourage or discourage voters from voting at all, depending on whether they see any point in casting their vote for a particular candidate. Traditionally, all post-Communist Bulgarian parties have employed polling agencies that, generally, produce results in favour of the party that commissioned them, thus making political PR masquerade as sociology.
2011 broke all records. The ruling GERB party employed as many as 60 polling and PR agencies, and advertising companies. This is more than two-thirds of all such companies registered in Bulgaria.
The highly manipulative nature of polls in Bulgaria reinforces the general feeling of depression and despair. Some pollsters admit that it is becoming increasingly difficult to collect polling data as interviewees refuse to take part in polls because they see no point in doing so. "Everything will be manipulated regardless of what I say," one respondent was quoted as saying.
Perhaps the most flagrant example of manipulation occurred during the only televised one-to-one debate between the main rivals in the presidential election, aired on private station bTV. It emerged that the polling station employed to monitor the viewers' sentiments during the two-and-a-half hour debate was owned by the chief of the cabinet of the prime minister.
Has fear of the sort known to every Bulgarian under Communism returned to Bulgarian politics in 2011? Obviously, to compare the methods of Boyko Borisov and his cohorts to the totalitarian system pre-1989 would be going a bit too far, even though some analysts are inclined to do just that. What is more realistic, however, is to compare the state Bulgaria is in at the moment with post-Soviet Russia, the Russia of Vladimir Putin and the big gas tycoons.
The Putinisation of Bulgaria started as early as the beginning of the 2000s and culminated in the approval of a number of energy contracts that left Bulgaria almost totally dependent on Russian energy companies. Outgoing President Georgi Parvanov, a former Bulgarian Socialist Party leader, was particularly proud to publicise his good relations with Moscow, representing them as a "grand slam" for Bulgaria. In terms of politics, this tendency may well be completed by Boyko Borisov. The man has already stated his intention of standing for president in the next presidential election. In the meantime, Bulgarians will have to make do, in the absence of someone like Dmitriy Medvedev, with Rosen Plevneliev (the pun is unintended). An able engineer and entrepreneur, true, but also a man who is unlikely to be able to say no to anything his boss requests.